Sunday, November 14, 2010

waterhemlock poisoning on the Oregon Trail

Common Hemlock Plant Weed C1880 Colour Botanical Print
Western Waterhemlock

The headline in our small town newspaper gave me chills: "Toxic taste of waterhemlock sends ditch crew to hospital: Youths mistook poisonous roots for wild carrots." We were living in Cortez, an exquisitely beautiful corner of Colorado. This news freaked me out as it did other parents whose kids love playing in the canyons and fields.

The article detailed how four males--ages 7, 15,18 and 20--were cleaning an irrigation ditch and decided to sample the plants. Though they took just small bites, they quickly became ill. By the time they reached the hospital, two had suffered seizures and were unconscious, and were put on respirators "as the poison paralyzes the vital functions." All four had their stomachs "flooded with a mixture of charcoal" to neutralize the toxin, then pumped. I interviewed one of the ER physicians. When she described how it took several people to hold down the boys in violent seizure, I thought, wow this stuff is dangerous.

Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie: The Oregon Trail Diary of Hattie Campbell (Dear America)At the time, I was researching Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie: The Oregon Trail Diary of Hattie Campbell, 1847 [Dear America]. One source told of cattle dying along the route after eating "wild parsnips." Hm. It figured that humans could have made the same mistake and more probably kids, as had the boys in my town. So in Hattie's story, I created the scene where the children pick 'carrots' for soup, but with disastrous results. Some of the women crush charcoal from the campfire into a powder, trying to force it between the jaws of the convulsing victims.

Young readers often ask me why some characters have to die. They say that since I'm the author, I can make everyone live happily ever after, right? But I kept the tragedy to make a point. Pa lecturing the children and Hattie's tears express my motherly worry, also my hope that even one life might be saved from this story.

In French Canada waterhemlock is called la carotte à moreau, or carrot of death. It's common in the Western United States, thriving in meadows and swamps, and along streams and irrigation ditches. 

Last I heard about the four youths in Cortez, was that they recovered, sore and tired, but apparently just fine. So there's a happy ending!

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